Feast for the eyes

BIG NEWS! My novel - The Boat People - is now available for pre-order. The American edition is available in hard cover and e-book. The Canadian edition is available in soft cover and e-book. On shelves January 9th...less than two months away. And check out these gorgeous covers! I'm calling them the fraternal twins.


The Canadian cover was designed by Andrew Roberts. To me this image, of a boat cresting those monumental waves, can be read in one of two ways. Either you see that tiny ship and worry about its welfare or you view that ship coming your way as a threat. Andrew's cover nails the two sides of the debate that plays out through the novel: are the people on board vulnerable or dangerous?

When I got my hands on the advance reader copy, I spent a long time marvelling at the splotches of colour on the waves, amazed at how Andrew managed to get a two-dimensional image to look so textured. The secret is a lamp post! He used a photo of a lamp post to get that subtle, gorgeous effect. Designers are magicians.

Boat People Final CA cover.jpg

Canadian edition - available in soft cover and e-book


For the American cover, Doubleday hired Italian illustrator Emiliano Ponzi. I must admit I got a bit teary when I saw his design. This sums up the heart of the novel: Mahindan and Sellian looking toward the future. The tiny details really make this cover sing - the contrasting shades of orange and blue, the rippled reflection, that slim font. And like Andrew's cover, Emiliano's can be read in one of two ways. Father and son are either standing on the beach in Sri Lanka about to leave or they are standing on the shores of Canada, about to enter. Arrivals and departures. 

Boat People final US cover.jpg

American edition - available in hard cover and e-book

 

Buzz

T-minus TWO MONTHS until The Boat People hits real and electronic shelves. JANUARY 9, ya'll, that's the BIG DAY. To be honest, I've been feeling a bit jittery since the late summer. Speaking to other writers, it seems this is par for the course. We work on our books in a protective bubble of support, with feedback from our editors and writing groups and friends, all people who love us and our work. And then we launch our books - these precious vessels into which we've poured our best words, anxieties, tiny pieces of our soul - out into the wide, cruel world. Into the hands of total strangers who may hate the book, literally and figuratively rip it apart, throw it against a wall, set it on fire. It's enough to make me want to hide under the bed on January 9th.

Happily, I've been buoyed by a couple of glowing reviews and some very generous advance praise. It began early in the summer when my editors began forwarding me emails from other writers who had read and loved The Boat People. In July it made 49th Shelf's Most Anticipated list. Mentions began popping up on reader blogs. More recently, the book received good reviews at Booklist and Publishers Weekly, and glowing praise in the winter issue of Atlantic Books Today.

Of course nothing happens spontaneously. In the summer Doubleday and M&S printed advance reader copies (they're called "galleys" State-side) and sent them out to other writers, reviewers, book stores, influencers on GoodReads etc. etc. In July I spoke at an Indie Bookseller event in Halifax. Lots of other stuff about which I'm only dimly aware has been happening behind the scenes on both sides of the border, hours and hours of hard work by publicity and marketing and sales. And also my editors. Because guess what? An editor's work isn't done when the book is finished. An editor's work is NEVER done, I'm learning.

We writers work mostly in isolation. But now, in these last months of gestation, the book is out of my hands and the publishing house machinery has kicked into gear, so many people working hard to ready The Boat People for launch. It feels utterly surreal. And I could not be more grateful.

 

So Much Love

Earlier this year, during a visit to M&S, my editor Anita told me about one of her other authors, Rebecca Rosenblum. She's a bit like you, Anita said. She knows everything about her characters, even the minor ones, and they like to show up in multiple stories.

A writer after my own readerly heart, I thought. Rebecca's debut novel was about to come out and Anita gave me a copy. Last week, I cracked it open. So Much Love is incredible, utterly devastating. Quiet, meditative, and simultaneously a compulsive read. In the last fifty pages, I couldn't put it down. Even when it was time to call my husband who I hadn't seen in a week, still I couldn't set the book aside.

At its heart is an abduction - a young woman is snatched from a parking lot after dark. For months no one knows where Catherine Reindeer has gone or if she's alive. Then the mystery is solved and everyone in her life must cope with the consequences.

Catherine lives in a small town and her disappearance affects everyone in it - her husband, her mother, co-workers, an English professor, a highschool girl she never met. Their stories are relayed in first person and third, giving us glimpses into these other lives while sketching a picture of the missing woman. The kidnapper has his say in second person, a point of view cannily chosen to make the reader complicit. In a lesser author's hands the device might have been coy but Rosenblum pulls it off with a dexterity that would make Nabokov proud.

Woven through Catherine's narrative is the story of her favourite poet, Juliana Ohlin, who died twenty years earlier, murdered, everyone believes by her boyfriend. The menace of men - strangers, intimates - looms large over the book but it is never suffocating. Because there are other themes here too: resilience, bravery, hope. The question of who a person becomes when pushed to the brink, how far you would go to survive, the value of rage when there is no one to rage at.

There's nothing lurid here, no cringeworthy gore. Instead, the prose is precise and emotion is at the fore. Every word, every nuanced thought, feels familiar and correct. 

Neither novel nor story collection, So Much Love evades neat categorization -  and is stronger for that defiance. Rosenblum wields the subtle pen of the short story writer, revealing through her interconnected stories just the tip of the iceberg. Always there is sense that there's more to tell about these characters, other details and anecdotes that didn't make the cut. As a reader I want to rummage through her recycling bin. As a writer I envy her restraint.

Persephone Books

I've long been a fan of British publisher and bookseller Persephone Books. With a store front in London's Bloomsbury, and 122 titles and counting on their catalogue, they've been rescuing mid-century authors (mostly women) from obscruity since 1998, re-printing forgotten gems and nestling them between Persephone's distinctive grey covers. The end papers are gorgeous and each book comes with a unique bookmark. If you like beautiful books, these ones are for you.

And if all you care about is story and prose, these books are for you too. Discovering authors like Dorothy Whipple, Mollie Panter-Downes, and Diana Gardner I've been both impressed and dismayed. Persephone only publishes top notch work and it's difficult to believe these writers would have been forgotten if they were men. In undergrad I took a class called Modern British Fiction. We read a book a week - a dozen in total - and only two were written by women. It's infuriating to think of how thoroughly and purposefully women writers have been shut out of the canon.

Repeat after me: FUCK THE PATRIARCHY.

If you're in London, check them out in person. Alternately, you can order books online. For short fiction, I recommend everything by Mollie Panter-Downes. For novels, I like Dorothy Whipple, especially They Were Sisters and Someone at a Distance. And if you are teaching an English class, please do your students a favour and diversify the reading list.

Antidote

A few months ago, during a sunny spring weekend that coincided with my 12th wedding anniversary, I read Alain de Botton's The Course of Love. I'd been hearing about the book for a while (and about de Botton for even longer) so I came to it with curiosity and an open mind. In hindsight, this is perhaps the best way to approach The Course of Love. It's a quirky kind of book, part novel, part how-to manual, a hybrid experiment in something I might call didactic fiction. Except didactic fiction sounds plodding and high-handed and The Course of Love is neither.

The book follows Rabih and Kirsten, a couple in Edinburgh. They meet, fall in love, marry, have children, and you as reader-voyeur follow the trajectory of their relationship. It's illuminating and honest and at various points along the way the narrator - sounding very much like a dispassionate anthropologist, a voice-over on one of those nature shows - interrupts with wry commentary. Musing on the fickleness of infatuation, for example, the narrator says: "The only people who can still strike us as normal are those we don’t yet know very well. The best cure for love is to get to know them better."

There were times when I genuinely burst out laughing. Or nodded in agreement. What de Botton has written is a necessary antidote to every false and silly notion we've been spoon-fed about love and romance and long-term commitment. It's the kind of book everyone should read when they are young, 19 or 20, and then again once a decade.

Don't lose the plot

A few weeks ago I submitted my very final revisions on The Boat People to my Doubleday editor (praise hands, please). Although I sent off the final manuscript waaaaaaay back in April, there have been rounds and rounds of copy edits (I've lost count of how many), first on the Canadian side and more recently south of the border. I'm incredibly grateful for these reviews and the meticulous copy editors with their magnifying glasses because quite frankly there were MISTAKES. So many typos and instances of poor spelling and factual inaccuracies and poor grammar and on and on and on.... Good thing there are editors to catch the ball when I drop it.

Cartoon by the talented Gemma Correll (via Instagram)

Cartoon by the talented Gemma Correll (via Instagram)

But now. Now. Now, I'm eager to disappear into a new project. When I began The Boat People I dove in without any kind of outline. And that was a mistake I paid for much, much later, when just as I was trying to sell the book, it became apparent how many potholes were baked into the plot. Yikes.

Some writers swear off outlines and others swear by them. I can see the arguments on both sides. Having a detailed a plan and then sticking to it doggedly can strangle creativity. But equally, following your nose without even the faintest hint of a map can be perilous too. Trust me, you don't want to be writing the synopsis - four drafts and two years in - only to discover major structural problems. Note to self, I thought back in late 2015: Start with an outline. Write the synopsis before the novel.

Mind you, this is only my second novel. So what do I know? Not much. But this time around things will be different. Fellow Port Authority writer Morgan told me about a site which outlines the "Snowflake Method" for novel design. Fair warning: It's also an advertisement for software. But you can ignore the software ads if you like and just focus on this post that breaks down how to write a summary (which is different from a synopsis) and how to flesh that short overview out into a more detailed outline.

To be honest, I skipped a lot of the opening blah-blah-blah and went straight to "The Ten Steps of Design." This is the meat of the method. What was particularly helpful for me (as someone who knows nada about playwriting) was to envision the story in three acts and really meditate on epiphany, desire, and conflict, the three key ingredients that captivate readers.

I stopped at the end of step 7. Step eight is about selling a book proposal and step nine gets into more detailed outlining of individual scenes...which is where I draw the line, at the moment, on planning.

What I'd like to do is set up my outline, work on my characters, and then go back to Robert Olen Butler's method of imagining scenes. I'm hoping - this is the goal anyway - to strike a balance between pre-planning and intuition. We'll see how that goes...

"He lost his shirt playing Solitaire"

Good friends know that I am evangelical about podcasts. Truly, there is very little I love more in this world. So when Trudy Morgan-Cole invited me to come on her podcast, Shelf Esteem (isn't that a great name?) and chat about books with fellow author Bridget Canning, I was chuffed.

We spent an hour in the recording studio chatting about the books on our nightstands, formative reads, eavesdropping on strangers, and the strange lists we keep in on our phones. Here's the episode on Sound Cloud; you can also download it from iTunes.

Required reading

Recently, while chatting with a couple of fellow writers, I was reminded once again about a gaping hole in my education: Bird by Bird by Anne Lammot, which every self respecting creative swears by.  (Note to self: read that book!)

In my study, a corner of shelf space is devoted to these types of how-to manuals, books I read with a red pen and highlighter in hand. These are my life savers, the guides I return to whenever I'm floundering.

Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway - the closest thing to a creative writing text book you can get and fully worth the price tag.

From Where You Dream by Robert Olen Butler - immensely helpful when I was first starting to work on The Boat People. Butler advocates a system of imagining individual scenes, jotting them down on cue cards, then once you have sufficient cards, organizing them into an outline. And then putting pen to paper to write a first draft. I fell down on the outline part but being able to take each scene as they came, one at a time, really made the prospect of writing a first draft less overwhelming.

Aspects of the Novel by EM Forster - short and sweet, illuminating for readers as well as writers.

How Fiction Works by James Wood - teaches you how to take apart literature as you would a clock so you can understand what works, what doesn't, and most importantly why. Wood taught me how to read like a writer, critically and carefully.

 

Toast is never toast

I've written about dialogue but what about the stage business? Action in a scene - a character moving through a space, physically interacting with other characters - serves several functions. It enlivens the narrative while grounding it in a fictional reality. And it paints a picture, allowing the reader to visualize the story. I'm a fan of interweaving stage business with dialogue, sometimes even using it to replace dialogue tags (he said/ she said). For example, consider:

I don't know, John said. It was there this morning.
vs.
I don't know. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

This example came from fellow Port Authority writer, Jamie, who smartly pointed out that the toast only deserves to be in the scene if it serves a greater purpose. It's not enough for the toast to highlight the speakers.

Now consider this:

Where's the cheque book? Nora asked, searching the junk drawer.
Dunno. John buttered his toast. It was there this morning.

Better right?

I'd probably take it a little further, show John swiping a pat of butter off the block, describe the dry scrape of knife on toast. Nora, meanwhile, pulls out scissors and rubber bands and junk mail and pens. John dips his knife into the jam and spreads a thick glob of strawberry over the greasy toast. Nora slams the junk drawer shut, yanks another one open.

This is a lot of unnecessary detail and most of it would be cut back in revisions but do you smell what I'm cooking? The toast now tells us who is speaking, suggests something about motivation, and gives insight into character. It furthers the action. The toast provides subtext - something unsaid to read between the lines. The toast is multi-tasking.

 

The glass is 22% full

So far this year I'm 0 for 14. Acceptances to submissions, that is.

As a coping mechanism, I've been gravitating toward articles about rejection (misery, meet company, etc.). Writer Weike Wang has a hilarious - well, I don't know if it's meant to be funny but I found it so - essay on rejection which I highly recommend. In it she talks about powering through and overcoming her 100% rejection rate.

Inspired by her essay (and her PhD in biostatistics!), I decided to crunch the numbers on my own spreadsheet. Twenty two per cent, that's my to-date acceptance rate. Another way to phrase it: In five years, I've been rejected 45 times and accepted 10 times, a 78% rejection rate. I'm not being sarcastic when I say...that's not too shabby! Better than I'd have guessed, even.

So look, I don't know if these quirky mathemagical mind games work for everyone. But they give me solace. If you're going to be a writer AND maintain some semblance of mental health, then you must find ways to shake off self doubt.

Because it always bears repeating, here's Cheryl Strayed on how to cope: “You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your bitterness except your own desperate heart.”

 

Advice from other writers

Glimmer Train - long time home of incredible, award-winning short fiction...have you all submitted work to them? you really should - has a couple of instructive essays on their website at the moment.

First up, British author Rowena Macdonald's tips for writing dialogue. My favourites are: 2. Don't dump too much information in dialogue. In real life, we don't always helpfully explain what's going on AND 7. Don't be afraid to let conversations hang unresolved in mid-air and move onto another scene.

MFA director Josh Henkin explores the link between plot and character. Plot, he argues, is discovered by interrogating character: "My graduate students often tell me they have trouble with plot, but what they're really telling me is they have trouble with character. I remind my students to ask themselves a hundred questions about their characters. Better yet, they should ask themselves a thousand questions, because in the answers to those questions lie the seeds of a narrative." This is a truth I know and yet somehow often forget. When you're stuck on something, go back to character.

 

 

Vampires

I spent two months in India this year, at a DIY writing retreat in Mumbai. I spent most days at a library where I didn't have internet access. Really and truly. There wasn't even a library computer I could use. If I wanted to check email, I had to leave the library, walk down a flight of stairs, exit the building, walk out of the compound, cross the street and enter a completely different compound, walk five minutes to where I was staying and take three flights of stairs to my room. If I had things I needed to legitimately look up for work, I'd make a list and do a bunch of google searches at the end of the day. Also: this research facility was dedicated to the hard sciences. Everyone at the library was a total stranger, none of them writers. So I had no social distractions either. If I wanted a break, there were two options: have a biscuit in the canteen or take a walk by the sea. Sometimes I put my head on the desk and napped. It was simultaneously frustrating and freeing. I was itchy for the internet but also felt immensely free. And productive! My American editor was so impressed by the speed and quality of my edits that she joked she was going to send all her writers to India.

Deep work - concentrating your mind and creative energy for a sustained length of time without distraction - is a non-negotiable of good writing. It is THE ONLY work any of us needs to do. And yet - barring trips to Indian research institutes - it is near impossible. We come at our work in fits and starts, eager for interruption, one ear always primed for the doorbell, the buzz of a text. Now that I'm back in Canada, back in range of my high speed internet connection, I'm the slow, laggardly schmoe who can't get a damn word written.

Last week's episode of Hidden Brain is a gem for writers. Host Shankar Vedantam tackles the concept of deep work, why it's so difficult to ignore the siren song of our to-do lists and email and social media, and what we can do to overcome these mental energy vampires.

Butter Tea at Starbucks

I'm something of a method writer. In the sense that I will do all kinds of weird things to get into a character's head as I'm writing. Like act out movements to block a scene. Or spend the weekend drinking mojitos in order to get the description of the taste just right. When I was writing the story Butter Tea at Starbucks, I thought about drinking butter tea. I even looked up a recipe but then wimped out at the last minute.

There's no real point to this anecdote, to be honest. The only reason I'm writing this post is to say that The New Quarterly has posted the story on their site and you can read it now for free.

Journey Prize

Two of my stories have been long-listed for this year's JOURNEY PRIZE. TWO! They are: Butter Tea at Starbucks (originally published in The New Quarterly) and Reading Week (originally published in PRISM international).

The Journey Prize has been on my writer's bucket list for a while so I was pretty happy back in January when both publications said they were putting my stories forward. My live-in mathemagician (every writer should have one) crunched some numbers and told me I had a 60% chance of getting one story on the long list and a 20% chance of getting them both on there. Take that, slim odds!

The long-listed stories get published in a collection - Journey Prize 29. You can pre-order it here. Finalists are announced in the Fall and the winner is named in November. HOORAY FOR CANLIT!

 

Kill your darlings

Late last summer the Newfoundland Quarterly approached my writing group, The Port Authority, with a challenge. Take an old headline "When Newfoundland Saved Canada" (found in an old issue of the magazine from 1949) and make it new. Could this curious statement prompt 500 fictional words? We were given free reign and five of us sharpened our pencils.

The NQ online has been publishing each of our pieces this Spring and this week my story went live. Flash fiction is not my forte but this piece was a total joy to research and write. I'm pleased to share it and the fabulous accompanying illustration by the very talented Kevin Kendall.

The voices in your head

Characters come into their own when I first hear them speak. And that's how I primarily write dialogue - it bubbles up from the unconscious part of my brain that is always at work. I may be crap at finding endings but putting words in characters' mouths has always felt natural.

But like any other part of the craft, there is some element of science here too. Here are some technical suggestions:

1. Don't rely too heavily on dialogue to carry plot or develop character.

2. Less is more. Three lines of dialogue? Odds are you need only one. Remember: what is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is said.

3. Dialogue gets good when it isn't straight forward. When characters lie or hold back or speak at cross purposes. This is how you bake in irony, double meanings, and conflict, thereby making the scene more layered and interesting.

Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic.

4. Don't underestimate the power of indirect speech. It proceeds at a swifter pace - helpful if your characters have a lot of talking to do - and is easier to nail than direct dialogue.

5. Dialogue should multi-task. If dialogue reveals character and ratchets up tension, if it propels the plot forward and makes you laugh, then it's all much more interesting.

6. Read the work of other writers and see how they go about it.

7. Listen closely to how real people speak. Listen to rhythm and cadence, how thoughts are phrased, the way people of different ages and backgrounds sound. Pay enough attention and you'll develop an ear for dialogue and an instinct for crafting it. Also, you can straight up just steal things you overheard friends and strangers saying.

8. Which is not to say that your characters should speak the way real people do. For one thing, we talk way too much in real life. Fiction has to seem realistic without actually being realistic. Allow a sentence to stand in for a monologue. Sure, in the first draft, write all the pauses and ums and uhs and verbal ticks and quirks of accent into a character's speech. But then later, when you're revising, delete, delete, delete and just leave a few things behind, a little bit of seasoning to give the reader a taste.

 

 

 

Sense of an ending IV

On the subject of endings once again, here is some wisdom from writer Ethan Canin who believes our job, as writers, through the course of the story, is to engage the reader so fully and deeply that emotion overwhelms intellect and the reader is carried along: "At the end of a story or novel, you do not want the reader thinking. Endings are about emotion, and logic is emotion's enemy." The idea is the ending should make the reader think about all that has come before and he draws a parallel with films that end with a camera tilt up to the sky. Canin is musing here, more than providing concrete advice perhaps but his thoughts are illuminating, nonetheless. Read the whole exchange with him over at The Atlantic.

 

 

 

Mavis Gallant

I've been taking a break from my novel (and novels in general) to tool away at short fiction this month. And on the side I've been immersing myself in the work of Mavis Gallant. But Gallant is one of those writers whose stories are better read aloud. So here are three, originally published in The New Yorker, and read by three of her admirers:

Margaret Atwood reading "Voices lost in Snow", one of Gallant's linked Linnet Muir stories

Karen Russell reading "From the 15th District", a comic ghost story

Antonya Nelson reading "When we were nearly young"